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The Witch and the Hysteric: The Monstrous Medieval in Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan – Alexander Doty and Patricia Clare Ingham

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Published by Dead Letter Office, Punctum Books’ imprint for “work that either has gone “nowhere” or will likely go nowhere,” this is a brief work from Alexander Doty and Patricia Clare Ingham, published posthumously following Doty’s death in 2012. The two first collaborated on an essay that, like the ones compiled here, considered the intersection between an occult work of celluloid fiction and its real world, pre-modern textual history: Val Tournier’s Cat People. In the case of the work reviewed here, Doty introduced Ingham to Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 film Häxan at a class they team-taught in 2001, and she, in turn, told him to read Malleus Maleficarum. Life intervened until the two returned to the theme in 2008, finding the impetus to begin work on this book at last, before reconvening in 2012 with a short text that was submitted to Punctum Books. Unfortunately, Doty died in August of that year, two weeks before they received recommendations for revisions and approval to publish from Punctum.

Despite the enduring popularity of Häxan, with the film having several versions released over the years (including an edit with narration by William Burroughs) and multiple scores composed for it, little has been written critically about it. Its influence on other film-makers has been noted but less made of its uncanny style mixing documentary and fantasy, both in its content and structure, which combines fictional episodes, illustrated lectures, and dreamscapes, all divided into seven ‘chapters.’ With medieval scholarship’s love of the monstrous this is somewhat surprising but Doty and Ingham redress this imbalance, arguing for Christensen’s Malleus Maleficarum-inspired witch as a monster herself, whose placement within an ill-defined middle ages signals both a category crisis and a temporal paradox.

Häxan still

Doty and Ingham see the untimely temporality in Christensen’s depiction of the witch as a recapitulation of the two early modern visions of witchcraft, one being that of Heinrich Kramer in the aforementioned Malleus Maleficarum, whilst the other is that of Johann Weyer in De praestigitis daemonum. Both men’s take on witchcraft effectively centred around whether to believe women, with the Catholic Kramer arguing for the literal nature of what accused witches claimed to have experienced (bringing with it affirmation of a belief in the Christian supernatural world), whereas the Lutheran Weyer was quite willing to see the very same as the result of delusions, giving the reports the equivalent veracity of the confessions of melancholics and the mentally incompetent. Ironically, the rationalist views of Weyer (who is touted by Gregory Zillboorg as a father to modern psychiatry) is the more disempowering of the two for the women in question, rendering them victims of their delusions and phantasms (rather than complicit wielders of dark glamour), and linking them, by implicit association, with mental illness and depression.

But we digress, suffice to say that Doty and Ingham use the debt that Christensen’s witch owes to Kramer and Weyer to discuss both men’s approach to the matter in hand, with little immediate reference back to Häxan itself for now. This makes the second chapter an intriguing and engaging summary of the texts of both men and their attendant worldviews, analysing their motivations and resulting implications, as their respective opinions track the greater early modern theological debate on maleficia. In the third chapter, Doty and Ingham continue to consider this influence, noting its effect of psychiatry and in particular the work of Freud and his conception of the hysteric, and also on other matters of epistemology. They refer to Kathleen Biddick’s assessment that the Malleus Maleficarum played a key role in epistemological methods of eyewitness reports and ethnography, with the figure of the Devil creating for both Inquisitors and historians a lens through which the accused women could be viewed, making their diabolical practice visible and thus evidentiary.

Häxan still

These considerations converge with Christensen’s Häxan in the book’s fourth chapter, Witch, Past and Future: The Politics of Retroactive Diagnosis, where Doty and Ingham highlight examples of this dichotomy betwixt the religious and scientific views of the witch. In particular they mention the scene in which a depiction of female witches is contrasted with one in which superstition-driven accusations of witchcraft are made against two male medical students, whose righteously scientific but still felonious grave robbing is placed in opposition to the irrationality of religion. In a similar vein, Christensen transitions from the close-up image of a woman’s back being pricked by Inquisitors in order to find areas of insensitivity (a tell-tale sign of guilt), to one of the same procedure being performed in a contemporary doctor’s office, ultimately diagnosing the patient with hysteria. In an interstitial, Christensen addresses the woman in question, describing her as a “poor little hysterical witch” who in the Middle Ages was in conflict with the church while now it is with the law.

Doty and Ingham note that for all his interest in technological innovation in film, Christensen appears preoccupied with historical repetition, with his analogies between the female medieval witch and the modern hysteric denoting a continuity at the centre of which is the figure of the abnormal woman. While the world around her changes, for her, the journey from demonic possession to mental illness has affected her little, and she remains monstrous and abject, perpetually in need of rescue and rehabilitation.

Häxan still

As its title and length of a mere 60 or so pages indicates, there is not much else considered here than Christiansen’s core conflation of the medieval witch with the contemporary hysteric, along with its theological and psychiatric underpinnings. Doty and Ingham write with an inquisitor-like focus, narrowing their gaze on this particular area of witchcraft records and analysis, with an engaging manner that draws from both areas with equal ease and erudition.

Published by Dead Letter Office/Punctum Books

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Helvete: A Journal of Black Metal Theory – Issue 2: With Head Downwards: Inversions in Black Metal, edited by Steven Shakespeare and Niall Scott

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Helvete Issue 2 coverThe first issue of the Helvete journal was previously reviewed here on Scriptus Recensera and was described as an interesting if flawed look at black metal through an academic lens. This second issue continues that approach and features contributions from Elodie Lesourd, Reuben Dendinger, Brenda S. Gardenour Walter, Louis Hartnoll, Erik van Ooijen, Bert Stabler, and editors Niall Scott and Steve Shakespeare. In their introduction, Scott and Shakespeare identify the inverted cross as emblematic of the themes of this issue, providing an overview of the contributions within and arguing that the power of inversion is not simply one of parodic reversal, instead opening new ways of thought through the collapsing of light into darkness, pointing beyond a narrative of salvation (in which one master is replaced with another, darker hued), and instead “towards an identification with the earth in its reality, in its corruption.”

Obviously, one of the appeals of black metal, to fans and academics alike, is aesthetics, and indeed the discussions here focus more often on things visual than things aural. The appeal of the imagery of black metal gives some of these contributors license to wallow in its dark glamour, employing its eldritch visual lexicon for equally florid prose. Brenda S. Gardenour Walter, for example, opens her piece Through the Looking Glass Darkly drawing a scene set in “sempiternal night, ice-laden autumn winds twist through gnarled and blackened woodlands as shadows grow long beneath a freezing moon.” Here, inverted crosses, inverted pentagrams and the severed heads of sheep “flicker in the firelight cast from the conflagration of Christian stave churches in the distance.” Walter presents black metal as a multi-layered darkened mirror that contains multiple inversions upon inversions which thereby conceals several potential identities for its devotees. She identifies within the first layer of the mirror the ability for black metal to act as a path to liberation and self-empowerment, with the embracing of what mainstream society and religion abhors creating an assured identity in opposition; albeit one whose principle of reactionary abjection binds it to its object of hatred through a co-dependent jouissance.

Taking black metal’s elitism and contrariness to its ultimate extreme, Walter argues that there is another identity that can be found within the darkened mirror of black metal, one that moves beyond the validation by opposition seen in the Satanism-Christianity antinomy. Rather than being a subscriber to some of black metal’s more pervasive orthodox tendency (the true bands, the right clothes… no sneakers or tracksuits, please), this figure in the mirror, acknowledged here as illusive and distant, is more a Luciferian and intellectual ideal, refusing to submit to anyone’s will, be it God, Satan or the black metal group mind. Here, Walter again returns to her kvlt, grim but picturesque language, describing this Byronic figure as a “single blackened self, standing alone in a barren waste, much like a gnarled and blackened tree against a northern winter sky.” Embracing the language of anti-cosmic Satanism, this nihilistic and blackened self experiences a moment of dark illumination as it sees its inverted reflection reverberating into a formless void, a void in which they achieve true liberation through destruction. “At the still point, in a moment of ecstatic union with the darkness, the self is annihilated in blackness and absorbed into the Oneness of Nothing, unfettered at last.”

Sandrine Pelletier - Aeg Yesoodth Ryobi Ele_emDrill!, 2011

Equally heavy on the lovely language is Reuben Dendinger who discusses black metal as folk magic in The Way of the Sword, with said sword being, in his eyes, totemic of metal itself and synonymous with the inverted cross. Dendinger presents the history of metal music as a modern yet ancient myth with its practitioners euhemerised into wielders and workers of steel, building motorbikes in the 1970s, and then going underground in the 1980s where they forged great blades and freed the witches, pagan heroes and the exiled pagan gods that would come to embody the genre from their imprisonment in Hell. Heady stuff; though unfortunately it doesn’t give a mythic explanation for hair metal, or Stryper for that matter.

Things stray away from black metal when Erik van Ooijen turns to the death metal/deathgrind of Cattle Decapitation in Giving Life Harmoniously. This continues the issue’s theme of inversion but this is not a case of religious antithesis, though it is a moral one, with Ooijen considering the way in which Cattle Decapitation inverts the traditional hierarchy of human and animal. With its vegetarian stance that turns factory farming and industrialised slaughter against its humans perpetuators, the band’s imagery, Ooijen argues, challenges and inverts the familiar violent themes, misogynies and hierarchies found within the grindcore and death metal genres as a whole, thereby enacting a queering of the carnophallogocentric (to use a term from Derrida) form. This is something hiding in plain sight in the band’s name, able to be read as the conventional decapitation of cattle, or the inverted and righteous revenge of decapitation by cattle. This conceit, and in particular its representation in the band’s cover art, has a precedent in the reversal of power relationships seen in the 14-18th century topos of mundus inversus, the world turned upside down, typified here in a series of Dutch woodcuts that includes scenes of an ox flaying a suspended butcher, or a goose and rabbit roasting a cook on a spit.

Dutch mundus inversus woodcuts

Another musical tangent is seen in Bert Stabler’s A Sterile Hole and a Mask Of Feces which takes as its launching pad An Epiphanic Vomiting of Blood, the title of the third full-length studio album by Gnaw Their Tongues, an act perhaps more associated with metal-accented dark ambient and noise. There’s not a lot of Gnaw Their Tongues here, though, and after an initial mention, Stabler swiftly moves away from them, grounding his discussion in the works of Hegel as interpreted by Slavoj Žižek, presenting a textually and theoretically dense consideration of themes of ecstatic disintegration and the embracing of the abjected in sublation/aufheben. This narrative wanders somewhat aimlessly and erratically, with Stabler swinging various theoretical models around recklessly and dropping examples and diversions out of nowhere, with those drawn from black metal often feeling tacked on to an existing whole.

Gast Bouschet & Nadine Hilbert - Incantation of the Gates, London, 2011

Like the first volume of Helvete, there is a visual component here, with Elodie Lesourd and Amelia Ishmael curating Eccentricities and Disorientations: Experiencing Geometricies in Black Metal, featuring artwork by Dimitris Foutris, Gast Bouschet and Nadine Hilbert, Andrew McLeod, Sandrine Pelletier, and Stephen Wilson. As one would expect, given the title, this collection explores themes of space and geometry, with the vaults, beams and buttresses of churches being a constant reference. Bouschet and Hilbert reprise their blackened aesthetic from Helvete 1 with a regrettably brief contribution, but the most striking pieces here are stark, detailed shots of Sandrine Pelletier’s sculpture Aeg Yesoodth Ryobi Ele_emDrill!, a linear three-dimensional pentagram whose blackened beams recall the remains of a scorched cathedral as much as they do some impossible, Lovecraftian non-Euclidean geometry. Lesourd and Ishmael accompany this selection of work with text that occasionally breaks from standard formatting into more idiosyncratic, not-entirely successful layouts indicative of the theme, pushing the text into geometric shapes or inconsistent column widths.

Sandrine Pelletier - Aeg Yesoodth Ryobi Ele_emDrill!, 2011

This second volume of Helvete makes for some interesting, diverting reading, with, for what it’s worth, the non-black metal contribution from Ooijen being the most engaging and well written; albeit long. He ably combines theoretical models with an integrated consideration of Cattle Decapitation, weaving in related factoids or anecdotes where relevant. As with the first issue of Helvete, there are some issues here, with questions inevitably arising over whether black metal is written about simply from the perspective of a dilettantish embracing of something exotic and transgressive. Similarly, Norwegian black metal continues to loom large, almost to the point of eclipsing all others; something that literally happens in Contempt, Atavism, Eschatology, where Louis Hartnoll mistakenly but consistently refers to the nineties Norwegian scene as the first wave of black metal, rather than the second, giving it primacy over all that went before and thereby casting Øystein Aarseth as some sort of black metal prime progenitor.

Published by Punctum Books.

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Minóy – Edited by Joseph Nechvatal

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Categories: art, music, Tags:

Minóy cover (image by Maya Eidolon)Published in 2014 by the Punctum Books imprint Dead Letter Office (home to “work that either has gone “nowhere” or will likely go nowhere”), this is a suitably appropriate paean to prolific sound artist and noise musician Stanley Keith Bowsza, better known as Minóy. A significant figure in the mail art and noise scene of the 1980s, Minóy produced over a hundred works before abandoning music in the early 1990s. Following his death in 2010, the collection of Minóy master tapes was entrusted to musician, past collaborator and long-time fan PBK (Phillip B. Klingler) who now curates the reissuing of these releases via Bandcamp.

Being a Dead Letter Office release, Minóy is not a long work and is comprised of essays almost entirely by editor Joseph Nechvatal, with the exception of one by Amber Sabri. Sabri’s piece is a prelude, in turn, to the visual component of Minóy, featuring a selection of images she took of Bowsza in the 2000s. This creates an interesting contrast, as Nechvatal’s writing is frequently dense and academic, while Sabri’s memoir is, by its nature, more personal and informal, and her images provide the only visual evidence within of the book’s subject.

Nechvatal kicks things off with the gloriously verbose title that is The Saturated Superimposed Agency of Minóy, which provides a thorough biography of Minóy and his work, before descending into considerably more philosophical territory. He draws attention to the echoes of La Monte Young in Minóy’s use of length as a compositional technique, arguing that the extended length allows deep subjective perceptions of the present moment to come to consciousness, thereby offering “a sonically ontological vision of the world as superimposition, one that shows us in place inside of a saturated world.” This idea of noise in general and Minóy’s in particular as a queer-like force that acts in resistance to conformity and mundanity, is one that permeates Nechvatal’s writing here. He doesn’t employ the lexicon of queer theory, though, using instead his own language of hypernoise theory, often referring to the ability of Minóy’s music to create an interplay of the human and the nonhuman.

Nechvatal concludes The Saturated Superimposed Agency of Minóy with an addendum in which he provides reviews of a mere eight of Minóy’s works, culled from a variety of sources and writers, principally Sound Choice but also Lowlife and Option magazines. For those unfamiliar with Minóy’s output, these give a sense of the soundworlds he was creating, and more importantly, how they were perceived by his contemporaries.

Image from Minóy as Haint as King Lear by Maya Eidolon

In Whatever Happened to the Man Named Minóy? Sabri writes a memoir of the man she knew, not as Minóy but as My Life as A Haint. By becoming a haint, a term used in the vernacular of the southern United States to refer to a ghost, apparition or lost soul, Bowsza drew a line under the Minóy that had obsessively created music for a decade and instead, now largely bed-ridden with physical and mental illness, turned to digital art as a form of expression. There’s something in the use of the word haint that evokes Mishima’s description of slipping through life as a ghost, sitting on the outside and divorced from convention. This is evidenced in Bowsza’s work as both Minóy and as Haint, and his personal life, in which he was divorced from confines both societal and temporal, with persistent agoraphobia and a tendency to sleep little and work long (sometimes staying awake for days on end in manic marathons of creativity).

Sabri’s photo essay, credited to her glorious pseudonym Maya Eidolon and created in collaboration with Bowsza and his partner Stuart Hass, is tortuously called Minóy as Haint as King Lear and shows Minóy/Haint as Shakespeare’s titular character in 60 black and white images, presented two to a page. Framed horizontally and largely with only head and shoulders showing, the images convey a sense of psychotic ferocity, with Bowsza moving in and out of great washes of long-shutter speed blur, abstracting into clouds of movement until briefly emerging again, as if from water, with recognisable, anguished features. While the images convey in strict representational terms of sign and signifier what one would expect the whirl psychosis to look like given form, there are other questions here, concerned primarily with identity and its loss. Sabri’s title conveys this with its cast of three characters, and within these images the trinity of Minóy, Haint and Lear all appear to be asking Lear’s own question: “Does any here know me? This is not Lear. Does Lear walk thus? Speak thus? Where are his eyes? Either his notion weakens, or his discernings are lethargied – Sleeping or waking? Ha! Sure ’tis not so! Who is it that can tell me who I am?” Nechvatal’s response to Sabri’s images makes similar observations, arguing that rather than seeing Bowsza’s performance for the camera as “a descent into the thick eerie nonhuman,” it is instead an illustration of “a very specific way of living mad in the intensified flow of superimposed becoming” before tying the ferocity of the images back to the musical leitmotifs of Minóy: “we can almost hear in these images his Lear-like scream into an unbounded white noise.”

Image from Minóy as Haint as King Lear by Maya Eidolon

As befits Minóy’s elongated musical forms, Nechvatal continues his own musing on Minóy with an addendum, The Obscurity of Minóy, which, it transpires, is but the first of several afterwords. Like the never-ending ending to the cinematic incarnation of Return of the King, this continues with the amusingly-acknowledged After After Words of The Aesthetics of an Obscure Monster Sacré and the After After After Words of Hyper Noise Aesthetics. Indeed, these after (after after) words from Nechvatal take up more space than his main contribution, allowing him to take flight with his philosophical notions of noise.

Now we must turn to the de rigueur justification for reviewing a book on a noise musician on a site ostensibly concerned with occult titles. While there is little in Minóy’s themes, both musical and titular, that suggest the magickal or the mystical, it is the response to this music that offers almost inevitably an interpretation arcane and anagogic. PBK’s documented enthusiasm for Minóy’s work after first hearing it has something of the religious and ecstatic about it, memorialised here with his description of it as “dream-like, nightmare-like, but also sometimes spiritual.” Similarly, Nechvatal’s use of philosophical and theoretical models inevitably leads to language that is redolent of the exploration of the unconscious and the internal, of intersections betwixt the mundane and the mystical. Like PBK’s description of Minóy’s music as both nightmarish and spiritual, Nechvatal frequently invokes the figure of the monstre sacré, using it a description of Minóy himself, and often of noise music in general.

Image from Minóy as Haint as King Lear by Maya Eidolon

If there is a voice that’s missed here it’s that of PBK, whose recently adopted role of Minóy archivist and legacy documenter has made him a significant player in the current revival of interest in his oeuvre. While PBK is heard here and there, variously quoted and paraphrased in Nechvatal’s pieces, there is nothing of whole cloth by him here, which seems a shame.

A similarly-titled album was released to coincide with the Minóy book, featuring nine compositions from between 1985 and 1993. Drawn from recently discovered archival material, the selection was made by Nechvatal, in collaboration with PBK, with the latter remastering the tracks. Given the long-form nature of much of Minóy’s work, PBK and Nechvatal had the difficult task of finding complete works that were varied enough and short enough to fits on a single CD and still be representative of his music. The CD version of Minóy is still available at time of writing but a fittingly limited edition cassette run is sold out.

Published by Dead Letter Office/Punctum Books

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The Troll Inside You: Paranormal Activity in the Medieval North – Ármann Jakobsson

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Categories: folk, germanic, Tags:

The Troll Inside You coverÁrmann Jakobsson is Professor of Medieval Icelandic Literature at Háskóli Íslands/the University of Iceland and has been, as an oft-repeated bio tells it, a postman, a high school teacher, a journalist and critic, a reality TV star and a political activist. Trolls loom large in Ármann’s work, with the 2015/2016 writing of this book coming as the result of eight years working with the subject. It is the product of a research project, Encounters with the Paranormal, which included collaborations with Ásdís Egilsdóttir, Torfi H. Tulinius, Terry Gunnell and Stephen Mitchell, as well as eight doctoral students, and three masters students who wrote their theses within the parametres of the project.

Ármann makes it clear from the start that the understanding of the troll, like the troll itself, is a shifting and intangible one – something intrinsic to the troll as a figure of ambiguity and otherness, whose only definable and immutable characteristic is that, due to their eldritch nature, they are to be feared. This resistance to definition, an opposition to any particularly constricting taxonomy, comes from the fact that trolls appear across the centuries in a multiplicity of forms: as ghosts or spirits, as supernatural but corporeal creatures (a categorisation that in itself can be broken down into still further categories), and as nominally human practitioners of sorcery. It is as if, as Ármann pithily notes, the more difficult it becomes to name or classify a monster, the greater the power it wields.

Whilst Ármann draws on Örvar-Odds saga and other sagas of the Icelanders for his initial discussion of trollish ambiguity, for his first thorough literature review he turns to the little known Bergbúa þáttr, whose singular tale tells of an encounter in a cave, sometime after the kristnitaka, between two men and the barely defined, forever ambiguous, bergbúa of the title. Although low on the usage of the specific word ‘troll,’ this story provides a showcase of all the themes Ármann has already identified: liminality, the unheimlich and of boundaries and intersections between worlds, be they human and the paranormal, a Christian present and a heathen past, and at its most obvious and symbolic level, the cave’s interior and exterior.

This idea of troll space is explored further in subsequent chapters, as is the idea of trollspeak, with Ármann citing one example in which the mundanity of the speaking of trolls (not the expected grunts or howls) exacerbates their otherness, upending expectations, and with it, the world itself. Speech and language does figure largely throughout this book, and Ármann builds on his original discussion of the vagaries of the word ‘troll’ with a return to matters epistemological and a meditation of the vocabulary of the paranormal and its intersection with the occult. This is an area fraught with difficulty, and therefore ripe for analysis, because as Ármann notes, the essential nature of the occult is to remain hidden (a quality implicit in the very name), and therefore ambiguous and subject to doubt and uncertainty.

These explorations of language, and of the ambiguity of the figures it tries to define and make sense of, highlights that The Troll Inside You isn’t a study of trolls and their studiously cited source texts; for that there’s John Lindow’s concise Trolls: An Unnatural History, as well as previous writing by Ármann. Instead, the troll is effectively used as a liminal gatekeeper, with its uncanny characteristics and resistance to definition providing a lens through which broader musings on perception and otherness in the Medieval North can be discussed.

As always, Ármann writes in an engaging and enjoyable style, completely immersed in the language of academia’s modalities, but without overuse of that particular lexicon. While there’s a place for the convoluted styles of a Morton or Butler, it’s not here, and it doesn’t seem to be part of Ármann’s personality. Instead, he’s more interested in connecting with the reader with a clear, informed voice that is authoritative but by no means fustian. He also shows an arch sense of humour, such as an abrupt fourth-wall-breaking coda which he subtitles archaically as “Coda: In Which the Audience is Unexpectedly Addressed,” producing a truly laugh-out-loud moment.

The Troll Inside You spread

The structure of The Troll Inside You assists its readability with often brisk (though annoyingly unnumbered) chapters that act as perfectly digestible little chunks of trollish goodness. Similarly, from a technical perspective, the type is set matter-of-factly and competently in an atypical slab serif that ensures readability but has a modern touch.

The end to The Troll Inside You sneaks up quickly on you, as the pure content finishes abruptly and early at the 163rd of its total 240 pages, with the rest of the book consisting of endnotes and an index. As the page count evinces, these endnotes are extensive and feature considerable elaboration, rather than simple citations or qualifications. Some run to half a page, with a small point size at that, so for those who interest is piqued, there’s a lot of adjunct material to dive into, and a lot of flicking to the end section as you read.

In their short seven years, Punctum Books have amassed an amazing collection of cover art, some full of whimsy, some with great contemporary design, and some that are just straight-up beautiful (yes, I’m looking at you, Visceral: Essays on Illness Not as Metaphor). I’m not sure where the cover of The Troll Inside You sits in relation to those. With the subtitle rendered like a stamp, there was obviously an attempt to play on a more contemporary idea of paranormal investigations (if we can called the X-Files and its aesthetic antecedents contemporary), rather than something distinctly medieval Scandinavian or academic. This, in turn, sits rather incongruously with the main title which is rendered in a geometric face with the counters filled in; a questionable typographic trend whose peak was some ten years hence. It’s all very aberrant, and dissociative, which, mayhaps, allows one to go “Aha, that’s what we were going for all along.”

Published by Punctum Books.

Published by Punctum Books.

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Helvete: A Journal of Black Metal Theory – Issue 1: Incipit – Edited by Amelia Ishmael, Zareen Price, Aspasia Stephanou and Ben Woodard

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Categories: art, satanism, Tags:

We stray a little from the usual matters magickal with this review of the first issue of Punctum Book’s journal of black metal theory. Helvete is a collection that is, to my surprise, no means unique, with academic interest in black metal having previously found expression in several iterations of the Black Metal Theory Symposium, with those contributions anthologised in publications such as Hideous Gnosis and more recently Mors Mystica. Black metal must surely be unique amongst all of metal’s subgenres in attracting this kind of academic attention, and to some extent this is understandable with black metal’s caché of cool, or at the very least its memeability; were such a word real. No one, as far as I am aware, is out there writing academic theses on grindcore, or even comparable subgenres, in terms of longevity and quantity, like death or doom metal; which is a shame.

Given the wealth of material already, erm, symposiumed and published, one would assume that the entry level, what-is-black-metal type discussions in this field would have been published long ago, if at all, and that is indeed the case here, with contributors exploring rather specialised areas of black metal’s topography. With that said, the first contribution, Janet Silk’s Open a Vein, does contextualise her discussion of suicide and black metal by setting the scene with the suicide of Mayhem’s Per ‘Dead’ Ohlin, a moment she describes as the birth of black metal (an urbane albeit arguable and problematic claim). Silk prefaces much of her consideration of depressive suicidal black metal (which she atypically abbreviates as the less recognisable SBM) with a survey of suicide in philosophy, religion, and other cultures, touching on Mishima and the death-drive of early Christian martyrs and Islamic šuhada. She does this in a slightly unnervingly amoral way, with what can be read at the very least as an admirable detachment with no moral judgement cast, and perhaps at worst, as a tacit approval of, or admiration for, suicide’s destructive and nihilistic impulses. I, in turn, make no moral judgement on this editorial choice and just reiterate the disconcerting feeling that inescapably arises when reading content that seems to sensibly suggest suicide is a good option. When DSBM is then considered within this context, its themes and motivations are validated as part of this greater milieu and given gravitas and import, rather than dismissed as mere posturing or angst. Silk’s main touchstone here, other than Dead, is Sweden’s Shining, and Denmark’s cheerfully named Make a Change… Kill Yourself, so it is by no means a broad survey of the sub-subgenre that is DSBM. Even if it wasn’t intended as such, it feels like some areas have been missed: the suicide of Dissection’s Jon Nödtveidt and how the anticosmic philosophies of the Temple of the Black Light compare to the nihilism of the musicians that Silk does document; or the isolation that is inherent in so many DSBM acts being solo projects by secluded, socially-awkward multi-instrumentalists.

The esteemed Timothy Morton finds a good springboard for his talk of hyperobjects and dank ecology in Wolves in the Throne Room, whose status as arch conservationists provides the basis for much of his musings. Despite being the Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English at Rice University, Morton’s paean to Wolves in the Throne Room feels more like a creative writing exercise, or the worst kind of music review in the world. You know the kind? The kind that describes the scenes that the music paints in the reviewer’s mind, rather than just saying what it sounds like. Do you know what is also annoying? All the questions. What’s the deal with that? Morton jumps around like he’s over-caffeinated, pre-empting all his conclusions with questions to the mute audience. When are we? Where are we? Why a pool of death? Why indeed. This works well when it is used initially for musings on the open-ended ambiguity of the band name (whose throne room, who are the wolves, are they welcomed, or invaders, or are they the original occupants?), but when page after page is peppered with not-rhetorical-but-sounding-rhetorical questions, it begins to grate. In the end, the questions, and indeed the wolves in this here room for a throne, tend to fade in favour of what comes across as talking points from Morten’s previous and voluminous discussions of a dark ecology without nature, barely tethered to the discussion of the band.Black ink on paper works by Allen Linder

The most enjoyable contribution here comes from David Prescott-Steed with Frostbite on My Feet: Representations of Walking in Black Metal Visual Culture. Perhaps this is because it is a meditation on something so simple, and yet so quintessentially, but not obviously, black metal. After all, who can imagine a black metal musician in a car? Inconceivable.¹ Prescott-Steed explores the theme of walking from multiple angles, including the personal, where he talks of the experience of ‘blackened walking,’ his term for walking around the modern metropolis that is an Australian city, but listening to a headphone soundtrack of frosty cuts from Burzum, Gorgoroth and Mayhem. He incorporates Rey Chow’s analysis of the cultural politics of portable music into this, exploring the themes of incongruity and of the act of disappearing that is inherent in removing an awareness of one’s environs by imposing a personal soundtrack; a theme that, though Prescott-Steed doesn’t dwell on it, feeds back into black metal’s tortured relationship between the over and underground, between fame and infamy, elitism and the recherché.

Daniel Lukes’ Black Metal Machine is a survey of the industrial strain of black metal; cleverly acronymed as IBM. He begins with an extensive grounding in methodology and context, namechecking Deleuze and providing several literary precedents (Ballard and Vonnegut) that emphasise the dystopian, post-apocalyptic vision of the future, rather than a shiny chrome utopia. This he relates to the misanthropy of black metal, where the science fiction-tinged desolation of the future is but a slight twist of a standard black metal narrative of destruction and contempt for the world. As examples, Lukes considers Red Harvest (who get several pages devoted to them), Dødheimsgard, Arcturus and Spektr, while also briefly touching on Marduk as well as Impaled Nazarene’s themes of a comic and perverse Armageddon.

Joel Cotterell concludes this volume with a brief consideration of the motif of the dawn in black metal, using tracks from Primordial, Satyricon, Inquisition and Nazxul as exemplars. Cotterell argues that the concept of dawn in black metal has a Luciferian component, denoting the rise of Lucifer as the morning star. Whether this interpretation of a less than rosy fingered dawn can be consistently applied to the over 400 songs that they found on metalarchives.com with dawn in the title  is not addressed.

In addition to the written component, Helvete contains a section of black and white photographic plates curated by Amelia Ishmael and titled The night is no longer dead, it has a life of its own. The nine artists attempt to evoke black metal visually with an emphasis on obfuscation through texture, meaning that there’s nothing too obviously black metal here, with only two densely rendered black ink forms (care of Allen Linder, see above) and one foggy landscape. Some of these are more successful than others, with the gems being Gast Bouschet and Nadine Hilbert’s images of Grímsvötn in Iceland, darkened to the point of abstraction but animated with emanations of effusive light.

Gast Bouschet and Nadine Hilbert’s images of Grimsvötn

There are some persistent little quirks about this book that irritate and makes you wonder how, in the parlance of the genre, ‘true’™ it is. Norway looms large within the pages and it is referred to by multiple authors as the home of black metal; not second wave black metal but apparently black metal in general. In another case, black metal is referred to as being “for the most part, exclusively Western” with the gracious caveat that it has since inspired international contributions in the last twenty years (Colombia and Taiwan being presented as the examples of amazing outliers). This overlooks the non-Western bands, most notably from South America and Asia, that thirty and more years ago were contributing to and influencing black metal. That this point of Western-ness is made in attempt to prioritise Scandinavian aesthetics as the aesthetics of black metal seems indicative of the tendency to fetishize the Norwegian strain of black metal above all else; implicit in the journal title. And it is the specifically Norwegian variant, there’s even little acknowledgement of what emerged from Sweden and Finland at the same time, perhaps because it never produced those memeable moments like a Varg Vikerness smirk or Abbath’s gurning visage.

In all, the debut volume of Helvete makes for a brisk read with its 100 pages, but does whet the appetite for more of this here black metal theory.

Published by Punctum Books


¹ The image of Snorre Ruch and Vikerness driving from Bergen to Oslo on the night of 10 August 1993 has always seemed wildly incongruous to me.